Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is a holiday celebrated annually on June 19th in the United States to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. It marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that enslaved individuals were now free (History.com Editors, 2021).
Origins and Historical Context
The story of Juneteenth begins with the American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865. The conflict centered on states’ rights and slavery, with the southern Confederate states seeking to maintain their way of life, including the institution of slavery, while the northern Union states fought for the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery (Mintz, 2020).
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The Emancipation Proclamation, however, had limited immediate effect, as it only applied to states that had seceded from the Union and where the Federal government did not have control (National Archives, n.d.).
Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with General Order No. 3, declaring that all slaves in Texas were free. The news came months after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, and two months after President Lincoln’s assassination (Martha S. Jones, 2020). It is important to note that this was not the exact moment slavery ended in the United States—the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery, was not ratified until December 6, 1865 (National Constitution Center, n.d.).
Early Celebrations and Evolution
The first Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas in 1866, with community-centric events such as parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, and musical events. Freed people pooled their funds to purchase land for the celebrations, the most notable of which are Houston’s Emancipation Park and Austin’s Emancipation Park (The University of Texas at Austin, 2021).
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Juneteenth celebrations spread to other states and became a time for African American communities to gather, remember their history, and celebrate their culture. However, during the Jim Crow era, these celebrations were often suppressed or ignored. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s led to a revival of Juneteenth as African Americans fought for their rights and sought to reclaim their history (PBS, 2021).
Contemporary Significance and Recognition
The modern significance of Juneteenth lies in its symbolic recognition of freedom and the end of one of the darkest chapters in American history. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial equality and serves as a celebration of African American culture and achievement.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday (Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 2018). As of 2021, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, thus amplifying its importance nationally (LeBlanc and Superville, 2021).
Juneteenth stands as a critical milestone in the journey toward racial equality in the United States. It acknowledges the brutal history of slavery while also celebrating the resilience and achievements of African Americans. As the nation continues to grapple with racial injustice, Juneteenth provides an essential moment for reflection, education, and commitment to progress.
- History.com Editors. (2021). “Juneteenth”. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/juneteenth
- Mintz, S. (2020). “The Civil War”. Digital History. https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3062
- National Archives. (n.d.). “The Emancipation Proclamation”. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
- Jones, Martha S. (2020). “What Is Juneteenth?”. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-is-juneteenth-180975155/
- National Constitution Center. (n.d.). “Thirteenth Amendment”. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xiii
- The University of Texas at Austin. (2021). “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom”. https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/caaas/news/15562
- PBS. (2021). “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth”. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/
- Texas State Library and Archives Commission. (2018). “Juneteenth”. https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/juneteenth.html
- LeBlanc, P., & Superville, D. (2021). “Biden signs bill into law making Juneteenth a national holiday”. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/17/politics/juneteenth-holiday-biden-sign-legislation/index.html